Wednesday, August 27, 2014

September Dreaming

As the first of September approaches, young and old cannot feel neutral about the new moon.  The actual events of the month differ from place to place but it cannot be denied that change is acoming, to paraphrase Bob Dylan.

In the United States, Labor Day marks the official end of the summer.  After this holiday, salvation or hell is coming, depending on which side of the parent-child duo you are, as students of all ages go back to school.  It also means the approaching end of the summer heat, to be replaced by the cool but pleasant weather of the fall.  Hikers and garden owners will soon get to experience the changing of colors of the leaves and their covering on the ground, albeit with different reactions, at least in the Northeast and Northwest.  Another result of the change of weather is the opportunity to wear the beloved sweater that has been buried, undesired, in the closet for many months.  For those who bought new boots on sale at the end of the last season, it is now time to show them off.  In the Pacific Northwest at least, the hunters and fishermen start planning their “campaigns”.  Most of this is in the future, but anticipation is biggest part of pleasure. In terms of spectator sports, (American) football fans fully wake up from their hibernation, with everybody allowed, for the moment, the illusion that his or her team really can win the Super Bowl.  By contrast, baseball fans go to completely meaningful or meaningless games, depending on the standings.

In Israel, September, the Hebrew months of Alul and Tishrei, it is also a time of change.  Like in the United States, children from nursery school to high school start the school year.  However, most curiously, this is only a dress rehearsal for the school year since once the “holidays” hit, i.e. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, they get another extended vacation.  Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, the actual Gregorian date, but not the Hebrew day, of the holidays wanders a bit, with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, occurring somewhere between early to late September.  This is quite meaningful for university students since university studies, logically in my mind, begin after Sukkot, meaning sometime between the end of September to close to the end of October.  This year for example, it begins on October 26 at the college where I work.  In terms of the weather, September brings with it the infamous “hamsin”, 50 in Arabic, referring to those horrible hot eastern desert winds that take your breath away.  By law or tradition, on Yom Kippur, a day of avoiding intake of food and beverages, it must be hot and miserable to add to the suffering. Those of faith would say this suffering brings you closer to God.  Curiously, it is also tradition, clearly not as dependable, that it must rain on Sukkot.  I regret to say that the last year’s Sukkot shower only succeeded in getting everything wet but failed to secure a good rainfall for the winter.  Religious people invest in mitzvot, good deeds, like taxpayers invest in December, since their fate for the upcoming year is in the balance until Yom Kippur.  By contrast, non-religious people merely worry about surviving the numerous family feasts and the cost of keeping the children busy during Sukkot. In regards to getting out those winter clothes, there are at least two months to wait.  As Tom Jones might say, change is the air.

So, September is the transition month from summer to fall.  If you have any local September traditions, I would love to hear about them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Phrasal verbs or the Set oxymoron

The hardest part of learning English involves phrasal verbs, the combination of a verb and preposition, because any sense of logic or order is completely lacking.  Therefore, the only way to learn them is abuse them as Ziva in NCIS would do. A nice example of this randomness is the word set, which means fixed or placed, among other meanings, but whose sheet variety of meanings when combined with preposition is quite unsettling to non-native speaker.

It can take minutes or hours to set up a machine, meaning to get it ready, but a writer may set down his/her thoughts, that is record them while baseball pitcher may set down the other side in order, getting all three batters out.  Many younger people set out on a journey, trying to reach a goal, but unfortunately become set in their ways when they become older, not willing to make changes. For that matter, if you set off an alarm, you actually cause it operate.  Setting your alarm forward causes you to wake up earlier, which could be a set back to your sleep.  Curiously, before eating a family meal, someone has to set the table, getting out the tableware, but to set a bar has nothing to do with alcohol, instead referring to establishing a new challenge.

So, the only effective way for a foreigner to learn phrasal verbs is to listen for them, try them and reset their meanings after someone corrects (and laughs at) you.  That is how children do it. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Tale of 3 Cities

Being a Jew in the United States, France, and Israel are distinctly different experiences and something that I have experienced.  During the recent Israeli military operation in Gaza, which is hopefully finished, I saw the status of Jews faced with a vocal anti-Israeli/Jew local population in all three countries.  I intentionally linked Jew/Israeli because in the eyes of our “enemies”, the terms are in effect synonymous.  To paraphrase J. P. Sartre, a Jew is a Jew because the world considers him so.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, most of the population was Jewish, meaning the high school was basically empty on Yom Kippur.  That being said, this Jewishness was against an empty background because almost all non-Jews in the area do not care about it.  This lack of contrast means that most American Jews have to “exaggerate” in some way to define themselves as Jews.  Some are politically active, especially in raising money for Israel and expressing Israeli’s interest in the U.S.  Others become religious in a country where keeping the Sabbath is truly a challenge (outside New York).  Some even join the Israeli army, as the late Max Steinberg, who died in Operation Protective Edge. Some strive to install some kind of Jewish identity in their children.  Many do nothing and fully blend into the American landscape, often marrying non-Jews (it happens to the best of families).  Being Jewish in the United States is an effort.

By contrast, being Jewish in France, at least in my experience, is fate.  Being Jewish in an overwhelmingly Catholic country has never been easy since anti-Semitism has always been part of the Catholic Church culture.  If you add a Muslim element to the mix, the situation can turn nasty quickly.  The attack on the synagogue during a recent anti-Israel demonstration is a prime example.  If parents tell their children not to wear a kipppa on their way to school as a matter of safety, it shows that Jews in France feel like a threatened minority, even if the silent majority of French strongly prefer the Jews to the Arabs.  As a French Jew, you have two options, tread softly in France or immigrate to Israel.

There, Jewishness is printed on your ID card and gives you automatic membership in a tribe, whether you want it or not.  The Middle East has always been a tribal society: Jewish, Arab (Muslim or Christian), and Druze, to name the most dominant.  A Jew walking in to an Arab village or an Arab walking in a Jewish city is identified as such even if no hostility is intended or shown.  It is a matter of identification, not racism.  In its crudest term, Hamas makes no distinction between left and right or religious and secular Jews. The person’s actual believes are irrelevant.  In comparison to the United States and France, Jews in Israel identify themselves and are identified as Jews as a basic part of social life.  This does not necessarily prevent relations with the other tribes but clearly sets the scene. Being Jewish in Israel happens quite naturally and creates a feeling of strength.

You can be Jewish in Los Angeles, Paris or Tel Aviv.  Granted that it is an individual decision, I feel Israel is a much more natural (if not always easier) place to be Jewish. To paraphrase George Orwell, I would rather be down and out in Tel Aviv (or Karmiel) than Paris or London.